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"These days you can't live without an education," a common enough quote that pops out of the mouths of millions of American parents and grandparents every day. But how many times have you heard a thirteen year old girl say those words? Billed as "the diary that changed lives," The Diary of Ma Yan is an extraordinary tale both in content and in the way the diary became a published bestseller in France and its author a celebrity throughout Europe.

Today Ma Yan is sixteen and a high school student in China, but her story begins in the year 2000 and ends in December, 2001. We meet Ma Yan when she's thirteen and in the last year of her primary school. She lives in the dormitory during the week and makes the twelve and a half mile walk home every weekend. Her life revolves around school and the absolute necessity for her to do well, while her very existence is consumed with thoughts of food and constant hunger.

Ma Yan's story is of her struggle to survive and break out of this terrible poverty.
"How wonderful it would be if I could stay in school forever," says Ma Yan, but in 2001 she knows that will never happen. Life in rural China is hard. In the village of Zhangjiashu, thousands of miles northwest of Beijing, the way out is by getting an education. If a family is able to provide the funds for school, the boys are the lucky recipients. When Ma Yan cries out, "Why can boys study and not girls?" her mother says, "When you grow up, you'll understand."
But Ma Yan does not understand; while, despite her harsh words, Ma Yan's mother does understand her daughter's passionate plea to remain in school. Determined that her daughter have a better life, Ma Yan's thirty-three year old mother sacrifices even more and travels two hundred and fifty miles away to earn the money needed for her daughter to return to school. In many ways, this is as much the story of the mother as it is the daughter.

In May 2001 when French journalist Pierre Haski arrived in Zhangjiashu, it is the mother who appeared out of nowhere and pushed "a letter and three small brown notebooks" into his hands. Scribbled on the back of a seed packet for green beans, Ma Yan had written her now-famous cry, "I want to study." Tears on the paper attested to her anger. Later Haski learned Ma Yan had gone fifteen days without food to have the money to pay for the ballpoint pen.

In short daily entries, Ma Yan tells of life in and out of school. Her desperate need to succeed, her emotional upheavals, the intense rivalry between students, the enormous sacrifices made by her parents, and the "cruel life" lived by her octogenarian grandparents pull the reader deeper and deeper into Ma Yan's world and reveal an ordinary girl living a life few of us can imagine.

First published in France, The Diary of Ma Yan is finally reaching American shores with this edition. As a direct result of Ma Yan's diaries being read, the Association for the Children of Ningxia now helps children like Ma Yan stay in school. Although this is essentially a young adult book, the story has the power to capture the imagination of adults. In my humble opinion, Ma Yan's Diary should be mandatory reading for all.

Taken from blogcritics
Available on Amazon
Fields: Humanism

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